Religious subtext of the empty chair

As the Republican convention gave way to the Democratic convention, the punditry still wondered what was behind actor Clint Eastwood’s … Continued

As the Republican convention gave way to the Democratic convention, the punditry still wondered what was behind actor Clint Eastwood’s appearance on the final night of the GOP event.

Eastwood: Blondie, Dirty Harry or William Munny. There he was on the rostrum, tall, tough, more wizened than ever. The Man With No Name, hunched over the biggest microphone in the country, talking to an empty chair.

“How do you handle promises that you have made? What do you say to people?” he said to chair, which stood there, tall and tough, an impassive pillar, an unyielding fixture of the landscape.

More Eastwood than Eastwood, perhaps.

“You’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy,” Eastwood grumbled.

Maybe just a gag. A piece of droll, political nonsense teetering on the brink between cheer and catastrophe. Maybe just Eastwood yanking some chains because someone gave him an opportunity.

But Eastwood is aging, if not downright aged, and his late career has been marked by some remarkable films in which his impending confrontation with eternity—apologies for the fine point here—looms, darkly and welcome at the same time.

Eastwood’s the creative force behind “Million Dollar Baby,” a story of the triumph of the will in a boxing ring that turns suddenly, almost inexplicably, into an examination of the conflict between dogma and mercy. The film’s tough and stoic protagonist berates the local priest for his supercilious faith, his pointless grip on the groundless assertions of Catholicism, then seeks the priest’s counsel as his own life becomes a spiritual crisis. And, in the end, he rejects the priest’s doctrinally-prescribed advice.

Eastwood’s also responsible for “Gran Torino,” which features a grizzled and grumpy (and aging) protagonist also in conflict with another priest, who seems committed to doctrine in the way that only the young and naive can be. Eastwood’s character, nevertheless, makes his confession to this priest before going with determination to commit his last, mortal sin.

The late films of the ambiguously spiritual Eastwood, the films that seem to look squarely at the conflict between eternal hope and mortal experience—the really religious films—infect Eastwood’s RNC antics with gravitas the tomfoolery cannot dissipate.

“We’re going to have a little chat about that,” says Eastwood to the empty chair, “about all these promises.”

The chair gives up nothing, surrenders no ground, and takes nothing. It only waits for the next accusation.

“Bifurcating this and bifurcating that,” Eastwood blunders. “There is so much to be done.”

Eastwood goes on, rambling, white hair drifting about his head, a celebrity prophet.

“It may be time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem.”

The human figures at the center of both these films of Eastwood’s late career wrestle, fiercely, with the cosmos’ infuriating silence. And both come to rest, in the end of their plots and their lives, in beds of their own obstinate making—in a silence of their own, but, finally, settled, neither challenging the universe to speak nor expecting it.

“When somebody does not do the job,” says Eastwood to the chair, “we got to let them go.”

But the chair stays there, at least as long as Eastwood stays. Empty and unresponsive. Waiting, probably, for Eastwood to pick it up and take it with him when he goes.

David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage and My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike. Follow him on Twitter at @fatsodoctor
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